The Marin Post

The Voice of the Community

Blog Post < Previous | Next >

Tara Wray

Microtransit Programs Promise On-Demand Transportation For All

This article, by Bill Donahue, originally appeared in Bloomberg Green - City Lab. To sign up for their weekly newsletter click here.

Just before dawn on an autumn morning, Anne Watson, mayor of Montpelier, Vermont, is standing outside in the cold, waiting for a bus that could help to remake rural America. In January 2021, Montpelier, a state capital of 7,500 people, became an early adopter of a transportation system that advocates hope will breathe new life into the nation’s small towns, where residents are more auto-dependent, more apt to be disabled, and poorer and older than in cities.

On-demand buses eschew set schedules and routes. Instead, users summon a ride on their own timetable using an app on their phone. This model, also called microtransit, existed as Dial-a-Ride long before there were smartphones. Now, it’s surging. About 450 companies currently offer the service worldwide, according to Lukas Foljanty, a German transportation analyst focused on microtransit. Of those, roughly 150 sprang up in 2021. Since its inception in 2012, the nation’s leading microtransit provider, Via, has landed $800 million in capital investment, enough to employ over 900 people.

Main Street in Montpelier, Vermont. Photographer: Tara Wray/Bloomberg

Via, which boasts about four times as many on-demand deployments as its closest global competitor, has myriad urban clients, including New York City’s public schools. The company has a presence in about 25 U.S. communities of less than 50,000 people. Chief executive officer Daniel Ramot is intent on growing Via’s rural footprint. “Doing this in rural America feels important,” says Ramot. “Microtransit gets people out of their homes. It allows low-income people to get to their jobs. It helps drive local economies.”

Mayor Watson likewise sees hope in Vermont’s decision to supplant Montpelier’s funding for three fixed routes with a two-year on demand pilot project, MyRide, run by Green Mountain Transit, a regional public transit agency. “As a community, we hope to be net zero by 2050,” says Watson. “And fossil fuel is the biggest portion of the carbon pie in rural areas.”

Still, it’s not quite clear how green Watson’s bus ride really is. “We never have more than two people on the bus at the same time,” says driver Philip Ballou. “All day long, I’m running around like a chicken with its head cut off. Nobody’s going in the same direction.”

MyRide currently is fare-free given the Covid pandemic. An average trip in Montpelier is 3.3 miles long and costs taxpayers $16.75, according to Green Mountain Transit. In another Via-served town, Wilson, North Carolina, the cost per ride is about $11, and similar costs prevail in other communities running microtransit on Via — in Lone Tree, Colorado, for instance, and on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, in Montana.

An empty MyRide bus in Montpelier, Vermont. Photographer: Tara Wray / Bloomberg

If the numbers sound astronomical, consider the alternative. In the American countryside, fixed route buses are rarely popular. There typically aren’t enough riders to justify running them more than once an hour. In Montpelier, the buses were so often empty that they earned the name “ghost buses.”

Mass transit is always dependent on public funding — riders’ fares just aren’t sufficient to cover expenses. Pre-pandemic in the U.S., the average rate of fare recovery — the fraction of operating expenses met by fares — was about 20-30%. Remote Blackfalds, Alberta, lost its fixed route service after one local official complained of “low ridership.” Blackfalds just launched a microtransit pilot project.

Whether or not on-demand is the solution to this conundrum is an open question that likely won’t be answered for a while. Via’s Ramot says his company’s software is early in its evolution. Meanwhile on-demand faces numerous challenges.

“Look, it remains to be seen whether microtransit will work in a place with a population as low as Montpelier’s,” says Stephen Falbel, a Montpelier-based consultant who is involved in producing a study looking at the possibility of having microtransit in a remote tri-town nexus where 12,000 people live amid cow pastures and sub developments northeast of Burlington. “There has to be a massive cultural change for people to start taking the bus. It’s called a pilot project for a reason.”